Russian Navy bravely runs away, FIRMS isn’t firm, and an unlikely secret advance

Russian Navy bravely runs away, FIRMS isn’t firm, and an unlikely secret advance

July 20, 2022 0 By Ellen Novack

A view of a port in the city of Kherson on July 19, 2022, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine. - The port is out of operation for two months, according to local residents. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP) (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

Ships in the port at Kherson have been idle since Russia rolled in.

Early in the invasion of Ukraine, those interested in following the war discovered that they had some friends in high places—places anywhere from 200 to 800 miles above the ground. Not only has intelligence been available in terms of satellite imagery (some of it from free sources), but NASA’s FIRMS Fire Map has become a staple in tracking what’s happening on the front lines and behind the front lines. However, at this point, the value of FIRMS has plummeted and the possibility of misreading this data has reached an all-time high.

The FIRMS Fire Map, which is created from two types of instruments spread across multiple satellites, is intended for tracking exactly what the name implies: fires. Technically, it spots “thermal anomalies” or “hot spots.” The hot spots located by FIRMS infrared tools are points that stand out, temperature-wise, from the background, and have been literal life savers when it comes to tracking wildfires in both the U.S. and around the world. That the FIRMS data also turned out to be aces at picking up flashes from artillery and the explosions of missiles was a happy accident—“happy” only in the sense that it provided much-needed support for people engaged in Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), not for anything actually happening on the ground.

But at this moment, using FIRMS data as an indicator of anything happening in Ukraine takes a good deal more scrutiny and expertise than it did a month ago. Here’s why.

First, take a look at this map of the area in eastern Ukraine.

FIRMS data, eastern Ukraine, July 19, 2022

At first glance this aligns pretty well with what we know is happening when it comes to conflict. Russian forces are trying to get to Bakhmut, near the center of this image, so it makes sense they would be bombarding Ukrainian forces in the area. Ukrainian forces are surely trying to take out Russian artillery. So they’re probably shooting up the backfield. Except … that cluster of shots over near Alchevesk is a good 40km into Russian-held territory. The spots south of Krasnyi Luch are even farther in the red zone. So … High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) seeking out artillery stockpiles?

Before you answer, take a look at this war-torn battlefield.

FIRMS data, NOT in eastern Ukraine, July 19, 2022

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This looks pretty bad. However, a quick glance at some of the names on this map will show that this is actually on the Romania/Bulgaria border. It’s an area where, so far as anyone knows, Russian artillery is not engaged in shelling towns and not a single HIMARS is firing missiles. Why is the map so spotted with hot spots? Because … hot spots.

First of all, it’s summer. FIRMS is not immune to being thrown off by a reflective surface or toasty bit of asphalt (though the system keeps a list of known/fixed hot spots and filters them out, so sure false spots are transient). Second, it’s dry. So there are actual fires. Some of those hot spots are FIRMS doing its duty and reporting places where trees are ablaze. Third, it’s summer, and it’s hot, and it’s dry. So farmers all over Europe are burning off the stubble left after the harvest of spring crops.

Most of that winter wheat that was greening up Ukraine back in April was harvested in May or June. Farmers like to burn off those fields in the summer to kill off weeds, prevent the spread of diseases, and drive out pests. Burning also helps put some of the nutrients from last year’s crop back into the soil for the next year. In any case, fields in many areas are burned in the summer in preparation for planting in the fall. Take a close-up look at these hot spots, whether in Romania or Ukraine, and the great majority are out in a patchwork of farm fields. And yes, Ukrainian farmers are still farming right through all this mess. Those guys who were towing tanks with their tractors are not going to get intimidated now.

This doesn’t mean that FIRMS is useless. However, it does mean that a casual glance at the FIRMS Fire map is a dangerous way to spot military activity at this time.

Clicking on any one of those points that’s highlighted on the map will provide additional data—including more precise locations and brightness of hot spots as well as more esoteric values like “instantaneous fire radiative power.” More details of how the data can be interpreted, and how it’s filtered before it ever makes the Fire Map, can be found in the users guide to the data. 

A careful filtering of the data can help to exclude actual forest fires, burning fields, and trash fires that are springing up around the battlefield area. Appropriately enough, it’s some of the data that looks “marginal” to the fire models at NASA, data on the edge of being filtered out of the dataset in the first place, that’s often the best indicator of military activity.

Some of those OSINT folks have become very good at picking out the war signal from the fire background. They’ll scan hundreds of hotspots, removing many of them based on data, and sometimes reviewing satellite imagery to remove or confirm still more candidates. The final set of data they produce is still extremely valuable for outside observers trying to sense the ebb and flow of the invasion.

All of which is a very long way of saying: While you may see maps that contain hot spots from FIRMS data, don’t expect to see a lot of FIRMS Fire Map images in the near future. Because a quick glance can very well tell a deceptive story. As with so many other areas of OSINT, I’m going to let the self-made experts do it … then sponge off of them.

Fun fact: If you scan around on the FIRMS map, you can usually find a few hot spots indicated in the middle of the South Atlantic. These don’t represent warships ablaze or undersea volcanoes erupting. They’re due to the South Atlantic Magnetic Anomaly allowing the satellites to get a blast of radiation from space.

The not-so-mighty Russian Black Sea Fleet goes into hiding

For a nation that had to steal a couple of ice-free ports, Russia has always been inordinately proud of its naval prowess. However, as the current home of the fleet’s flagship, Moskva, indicates, the actual quality of that navy, and its equipment, seems to be completely on par with the rest of the corruption-plagued, poorly maintained, and entirely overestimated Russian military.

The Moskva was reportedly sunk by a pair of Ukrainian-made R-360 Neptune missiles with a range up to 280 km. Since that sinking, Ukraine has also gained a number of Harpoon missile systems. The Harpoons have about half the range, somewhere under 150km, but are much better able to evade defensive systems … not that the Russian flagship seemed to put up much resistance on that basis.

Whatever weapon is used, Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine Volodymyr Gavrylov has made it clear that one of Ukraine’s goals in this war is sinking the Black Sea Fleet. Gavrylov indicated that Ukraine has some even longer-range weapons on the way that would allow it to clear the ships that are blocking Ukrainian ports and holding back shipments of Ukrainian grain.

Which makes this bit of intelligence very interesting.

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Not only was the port in Sevastopol under threat from anti-ship missiles, indications that Ukraine is about to receive longer range missiles for use with the HIMARS system mean that the Russian Navy’s biggest warm-water port is under threat from a number of points along the coast. That threat only increases should Ukraine retake the area around Kherson. So getting those ships the hell outta Dodge makes a lot of sense.

That smaller facility over at Novorossiysk might also need to prepare for some additional residents. The recent missile attack on Vinnytsia, which killed at least 23 people including three children, was reportedly launched from a Russian submarine in the Black Sea. The Black Sea Fleet includes six submarines, all of the 636 ‘Varshavyanka’ class. Compared to the things moving around on land, these are relatively new systems, with the earliest dating back to 1997. However, they are diesel-electric subs, not nuclear subs, and at 20+ years old, they need considerable time and maintenance on the surface between each 45 day cruise.

The submarine that fired those missiles into Vinnytsia is going to be sitting on the surface at a dock soon. Ukraine is really hoping that dock is at Sevastopol.

Is Ukraine’s silence in Kherson hiding a significant advance?

For a solid month now, Ukraine has been insisting that a counteroffensive is underway in the area around Kherson. It’s also insisted that strict operational silence is in place, and the daily briefings from the Ukrainian military have rarely shed any light on developments.

We’ve seen some flashpoints of that offensive: the crossing of the Inhulets River south of Davydiv Brid and occupation of several villages; the push along the southern section of the line that has brought Ukrainian forces close enough to shell Russian control centers and equipment just outside the city; and continuous fighting around a number of towns where Russian forces have constructed hardened positions.

But some detailed geolocation of images and video from one of the many online sources following this invasion closely shows that most of those looking at the area may have missed something big.

His conclusion is that Ukraine is actually much closer to Nova Kakhovka, and that northern bridge across the Dnipro, than any public report has acknowledged. That’s an attractive thought, especially considering how Ukraine recently blew the holy hell out of a huge ammunition depot at Nova Kakhovka and has fired on other targets near the city.

However, there is a problem with this theory. Much of it based on fields being on fire to the southeast of Nova Kakhovka at a distance that would require Ukrainian forces to be much closer to the city than anyone has reported. And even the satellite data used to support this shows a very regular pattern of burning that confirms neatly to the boundaries of an area under cultivation.

What’s really at work here is likely to be the same thing confounding many of those currently looking at FIRMS data—the deliberate burning of fields where spring crops have already been harvested. It’s not just satellites who can get fooled when a new factor enters into the dataset.

On the other hand … maybe he’s right. I hope he’s right. I just don’t expect it. As tight as the Ukrainian opsec has been, it’s not that tight.

If the Three Stooges owned a tank …

The old saw that “Russian tanks are fueled by vodka” appears to still be operative.

Vladimir Putin’s gift list

Republicans in the House on Monday made it easy for Vladimir Putin to do his Christmas shopping: 18 of them actually voted to exclude Sweden and Finland from NATO, because … who cares? I’m sure Marjorie Taylor Greene, Thomas Massie, and Matt Gaetz can provide you with a reason.

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Thankfully, these pro-Russian jackasses’ votes don’t mean spit.



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